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With only a month and a half to go, I am making my way through as many of St. Petersburg’s attractions as I can. Today’s consistently appears on travel top 10 lists for creepy/spooky/disturbing museums: the Kunstkamera (Кунсткамера). After visiting, many of the AIFS students simply referred to it as “the Fetus Museum,” although its content and history are much more varied.

Officially known as the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography, this was the first museum in Russia, and is one of the oldest in the world. The museum’s founder was (naturally) the Renaissance man himself, Peter the Great. Peter was interested in almost everything:  shipbuilding, cobbling shoes, military technology, and medicine (to name a few). He had been collecting curiosities–stuffed animals, model ships, tools and astronomical instruments–for years already in the Summer Palace.

In 1718, The Tsar gave the order for the establishment of a “kunstkammer” (a chamber of art), and himself enriched the collection with exhibits brought back from each of his journeys abroad. The resulting exhibits were in the “cabinet of curiosities” style, a common type of collection for the period, with the goal to preserve “natural and human curiosities and rarities.” The underlying idea was to provide the visitor with full knowledge of the world: both its cultures and its natural phenomena. This knowledge was part of the Enlightenment that Peter dearly wanted to bring to his subjects, so when the museum opened, he motivated the public to visit by offering free pie and wine at the entrance. He had to hire a guard shortly thereafter, as Russians of the period did not know what to make of the museum, and usually just walked quickly in and out to get multiple helpings.

typical 18th century “wunderkammer” (cabinet of curiosities)

When you visit the Kunstkamera, there are two collections: the ethnographic (those dealing with ethnic costumes, artifacts, and practices) and the anthropological/scientific (including natural exhibits like minerals, taxidermy, and preserved anatomical specimens). There were originally sepeate museums for each collection, but it was eventually decided to consolidate them. Even today, the core of the collection is still made up of exhibits collected during Peter’s lifetime, the most famous being the anatomical specimens and assorted freaks prepared by the Dutch anatomist Frederick Ruysch.

One of Peter’s main goals was to debunk Russian superstitions with scientific fact, particularly the belief that individuals with deformities were “monsters,” or had been cursed in womb. In order to expand the collection, Tsar Peter issued one of his weirder orders: one in which he commanded that that all stillborn fetuses with deformities be sent to the Kunstkamera for examination, possibly followed by preservation and display. You can still see these today, from hydrocephalics to quintuplets:

Photography is not allowed in the Kunstkamera (and the babushkas there are much more militant in enforcing this rule than at other museums), but let’s be honest–these are the type of things that haunt you on their own anyway. If you can handle the weird (just try not to think about what you would do if one of them opened its eye), or if you just want to see the ethnographic collection, I highly recommend it. 

This post was written by a blogger-friend of mine, currently living and teaching English in Tbilisi, Georgia with the TLG program. If you would like to read more of his fantastic blog, you can find it here. Although he lives in Georgia, I found his recent post very applicable to my present experiences in “post-Soviet” Russia:

I think it’s safe to say that people in the US, overall, have absolutely no clue what it was like to grow up in the Soviet Union.

If you’re from the West, take a minute to think about what you thought Soviet life was like. You probably imagined people huddled under blankets, drinking vodka for warmth with no light and no heat in an eternally bleak landscape where the sun never shines. You probably thought life in the USSR was one long joyless Soviet winter stretching from World War II until the fall of the Berlin Wall. You probably thought that if the Soviets were willing to risk complete annihilation in a global thermo-nuclear war, then life in the Soviet Union must be pretty cheap. And you’ve probably been fed enough lines about godless communists and their disastrous centralized economy and their gulags and their James Bond villains to believe that the Soviet political economy was a dystopian hellscape where anyone, anywhere, could be whisked off the street by the KGB on mere suspicion of opposing the State apparatus which systematically starved and bankrupted the common man in the name of the Communist Party.
Now, obviously, the USSR no longer exists. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics disunited two decades ago. Georgia and the US now celebrate 20 years of diplomatic relations with Georgia as a fully autonomous state, not the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic. And you can point out that the USSR failed for a reason, that Georgia left the Union for a reason, that Communism has lost all credibility as an economic system for a reason. But saying that the USSR was an unstable alliance built on questionable political and economic institutions is a far cry from painting the bleak, Mordor-esque picture that most Americans seem to have of Mother Russia and its former satellite republics.
I used to wonder what life would actually be like in the USSR. I used to read a lot of Tom Clancy novels and I literally used to think that if I actually were to visit the USSR – if I had a time machine and could go back to the 80’s as an adult – that I would feel something different in the air. That the “Iron Curtain” must have been palpable, that the people would know I was from outside it, and that they would stare at me.
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When I was in grade school, we had air-raid drills. They were like fire drills, except there was a specific siren that went off and instead of heading for the nearest emergency exit, we were instructed to crouch under our desks in the fetal position. This was largely pointless – if, in the unbelievably unlikely event that the Soviet air force successfully crossed the Atlantic ocean and mounted a bombing campaign against New York City, it’s hard to believe that this event would take place without enough warning for parents not to send their kids to school.
No, the reason for the air-raid drills was not to protect us in the event of an air raid. It was to instill in us, as children, an irrational fear of the Soviet Union. Most TLG Volunteers grew up in the 90’s – a brief period when America struggled to find a credible enemy – and if it was hard to swallow the idea that the Russian air force would bomb New York, imagine trying to convince someone that the Iraqi air force would do so. After 9/11, America had an enemy again, and the powers that be have wasted no time in making up for the relative security America felt in the booming 90’s, and now American security theater is far, far worse than it ever was in the Cold War. Children of the 2000’s will grow up with grossly distorted ideas of what life is like in the Muslim world, unlike children of the 80s, like myself, who grew up with grossly distorted ideas of what life was like in the Soviet world.
The only way America can really have enemies is to grossly distort them. To strip away the humanity, to vilify the government by presenting a ridiculous caricature of the people. To play up their suffering, to present their lives as bleak and joyless. Our view of life in the USSR was not something we invented because of ignorance or malice – it was something thrust onto us by our leaders to keep us compliant. Our ignorance was done to us, when we were too young to defend ourselves, when we were nine years old and huddled under our desks in the fetal position.
Not that this climate of fear defined my life in any way that I can really put my finger on. When I think of my childhood, I think more of the culture I consumed, in the form of books, songs, and TV shows, than I do of the nonsense that the adults in my life were constantly worrying about.
Still, I can’t help but wonder what would have been different if we’d had YouTube. Would we have fallen for the same propaganda if we’d had the ability to actually experience cultural exchange with the USSR? I guess we’ll see – the growing movement against war with Iran offers a suggestion of how the information age might bring two peoples together despite their governments being at odds.
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I’ve had inklings about life in the GSSR before – the fact that, for example, there do exist a sizable number of Georgians who preferred Soviet times, or at least claim they did. The fact that the wars with Abkhazia started because many Abkhazians didn’t want to break away from the USSR. The fact that in the period of instability following the collapse of the USSR, Georgia went through political and economic upheaval including several coups and the loss of regular public services, such as water, power, and gas. There’s a joke I’ve heard Georgians tell: “What did Georgians use for light before candles? Electricity.” Yes, Soviet times may have been tough, but, at least in Georgia, Soviet times meant a certain amount of stability and a certain basic level of services provided by the state. It meant knowing your career path was basically taken care of (even if this was done in an inefficient way in terms of the overall economy, and has left Georgia with an army of doctors and lawyers who drive cabs for a living).
But the first real idea I got about what my life might have been like if I had been born in Tbilisi, rather than New York, in 1981, was an incredibly catchy little tune.
I first heard Ничего на свете лучше нету – “Nothing on Earth Could Be Better” – when some kids at Buckswood were playing it on the piano. Thus began a months-long obsession with the song, which, as I said, I find incredibly catchy. It’s the opening song from the animation “The Musicians from Bremen”:
Google Translate can give you the full lyrics, but the gist is that this song is about the freedom of the open road. About how wonderful it is to travel with friends, with the trees as your walls and the green grass as your carpet. Everyone I’ve asked about this song, in Georgia, knows it from their childhood.
Yes, that’s right – children in the Soviet Union grew up singing songs about freedom, about nature, and about wandering on the open road. If you’re American, you probably think of that as a particularly American sort of ideal, but apparently it has a global appeal.
If “The Musicians from Bremen” first pushed me in the direction of thinking about a Soviet childhood (well, actually, I’d have to credit Billy Joel’s “Leningrad” with that, but Leningrad is more of a superficial “They’re just like us! They have circus clowns and children!” piece, while “Musicians” is more concrete) then the real clincher had to be Winnie the Pooh. Or should I say “Винни-Пух”.
Винни-Пух is like a weird, awesome alternate-universe version of Disney’s “Winnie The Pooh.” At this point I have to confess that I’ve never actually read the A.A. Milne books or stories, only seen various Disney movie versions. As a kid I saw “Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree” and “Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day” so many times I practically had them memorized. Well, to be honest, both the blustery day and the Heffalumps and Woozles song were terrifying to me, so I had a distinct preference for the Honey Tree.
This, on the other hand – wonderfulYou can find some with English subtitles, but I saw the sub-less version first, and, by virtue of overall familiarity with the story, could follow the action reasonably well. The balloon, the mud-puddle, the umbrella. The bees.
I’ve noticed that a lot of the stuff they let us watch as children – Looney Tunes is a great example, and Popeye – were actually really racist and sexist and violent and just weird all around. Winnie The Pooh – on both sides of the Iron Curtain – seems to be a lovely counterexample.
I’d love to close with some kind of platitude about how what unites us as humans is more powerful than what divides us, but that just feels hollow, especially knowing that so far, it isn’t. The USA and the USSR still managed to be enemies despite, deep down, having similar values and similar goals and similar daily concerns. American pundits and politicians still demonize the Other and the American people still fall for it. I write this knowing that right now, in this moment, there are millions of kids in the world for whom America is the evil empire, which any day now could cross the Atlantic ocean and rain down death from the sky.
When does a child go from innocent to complicit? Every time I watch Винни-Пух, I think, just for a moment, that we could go back.

Anyone who knows me also knows that I am by no means a gourmand. Yes, I can tell homestyle Italian cooking when I smell/taste it, I have a rudimentary knowledge of wine-food pairings, and I can tell when a restaurant masquerading as high class has just overcharged me for a low-quality and ineptly prepared steak. But when my birthday rolls around, I don’t want five-star or usually even anything that could be prefaced with “authentic.” I want to wake up to Reese’s Puffs and Eggos in a lake of syrup. I want a genetically enhanced chicken breast rolled in sugary breakfast cereal and deep fried. I want “Chinese” food glistening with MSG. I want Girl Scout Cookies. I want to dip my Wendy’s french fries in my chocolate frosty.

In other words, I grew up in a middle class American neighborhood that hipsterdom passed by. If you happened to have the same upbringing, or have the same cravings that will eventually lead you to diabetes and/or cardiac arrest, here are a few tidbits of American cuisine that may keep you awake at night in Russia:

-Oreos and milk. I have yet to see Oreos anywhere in Russia, which strikes me as odd given their shelf life and the fact that they were easy enough to find in, oh, the Ecuadorian Amazon provinces. Along with Chips Ahoy, Rice Krispie Treats, Nutter Butters, and other American lunchbox delicacies, you may be able to find them (for a price) at Stockmann’s, a department store on Nevsky Prospekt known for its selection of imported foods.

I especially miss the ones with the sparkly mint filling (Blue #1, Yellow #5)

-Cheeses that you recognize. I was told that Russia had a thing for dairy and that cheeses here were amazing. Once again, I am no connoisseur and maybe I’m shopping in the wrong places, but I’ve experienced a lot of disappointment. I also have my own personal taste in cheese—I like sharper cheeses with a certain degree of firmness, like parmesan, aged cheddars, or smoked gouda. You can get gouda here fora a decent price, but most of the cheeses I’ve had here were bland and mushy (so, like American cheese, but…moist).

-Breakfast cereal. It has kind of started to catch on here, but it’s not really a go-to meal-snack like it is in the U.S. As a result, there are only about 2-5 kinds of cereal at the grocery stores (instead of the bewildering 50-odd you find in America), usually the opposite extremes of granola (muesli), and the junky ones targeted at children. But I won’t complain about the latter.

-Fruit. Due to the long winters and short growing seasons, Russia has to import the vast majority of its fruit almost all year. This makes fruit very expensive, which makes me sad but also makes me realize how disturbing it is that you can get tropical fruit mid-January in Boston for a reasonable price. I suggest bringing some vitamin supplements. Or you could just go through a box of orange juice a day, like I do.

-Maple syrup, and the breakfast foods on which it is poured. I’m reasonably sure that Canada and the U.S.A. are the only countries that appreciate syrup. In any case, breakfast in Russia confuses me. I never see my host family eat (we all leave for school and work at different times, and my host sister is constantly dieting), so without waffles, pancakes, French toast, English muffins, fruit, yogurt, bacon, sausages, eggs, oatmeal, or cereal…I just assume they must eat slices of bread and cheese every day.

-Peanut butter. Actually, I don’t really miss it that much, but everyone else does. I was never a huge sandwich-eater at home, and always preferred cheese and Wheat Thins to peanut butter and Ritz. The prevalence of Nutella here more than compensates for the lack of peanut butter.

-American pizza. Unless you go to Pizza Hut or pay an obscene amount of money at a classier Italian place here (a study in contrasts, I know), the pizza here is not what an American college student would recognize as pizza. A standard Russian pizza at a middle-of-the-road restaurant tends to be flat, dry, and buried beneath a combination of toppings that can at best be described as artistic. When I go home, I am ordering a meat lover’s from Papa John’s to reconnect with my heritage.

In tribute to a country whose cup runneth over with absurdities not just on April Fool’s Day, but all year round, here is a collection of my favorite “in Soviet Russia…” memes:

 “I should like to call you all by name / but they have lost the lists.”

Anna Akhmatova, Requiem 1935-40

 

The nine hundred day Siege of Leningrad (блокада Ленинграда) by Nazi forces is a horrific chapter in the history of St. Petersburg, and even in all of Russia. It is considered one of the longest and most destructive sieges in world history, and is by far the most costly in terms of casualties. Some historians speak of the siege operations in terms of genocide, as a “racially motivated starvation policy” that became an integral part of the unprecedented German war of extermination against populations of the Soviet Union.

While you may see the blockade commemorated throughout the city (usually in the form of plaques/statues with “1941-1944” included somewhere), it is still too dark and uncomfortable a subject for many Russians to discuss. It isn’t long ago enough to be a completely distant memory—one graduate student here had a professor whose mother starved to death. Records state that residents of the city who could not or would not evacuate suffered one of the coldest winters in its history. They did so with no electricity and dwindling supplies of food and firewood—all the while being shelled by the Germans.

From the diary of Tanya Savicheva (11), showing her notes about the starvation and deaths of her grandmother, then uncle, then mother, then brother, the last record saying “Only Tanya is left.” She died of progressive dystrophy shortly after the siege. Her diary was shown at the Nuremberg trials.

Once while waiting for a friend to meet me at Dom Knigi, I came across a book about the Siege and thought it would be helpful to look through it before visiting the cemetery and memorial with our class. The images were haunting—people reached such states of emaciation that they could not expend the energy to bury victims of the periodic bombardments, who froze on the streets. Those who were buried, numbering about half a million, were generally sent to the mass grave (now the memorial cemetery).

Perhaps the most well-done part of the siege memorial is the slideshow that superimposes images of Siege-era Leningrad on modern-day St. Petersburg. It was deeply unnerving to recognize many of the places, and know that just a few days ago I had casually walked down the street where frozen bombardment victims were once heaped. It was also disturbing to see preserved samples of daily rations at the time: 125 grams of bread, 50% of which was made up of sawdust or other inedible matter. In the depths of siege winters, reports surfaced that some turned to cannibalism to stay alive. In January and February 1942, it is estimated that between 700 and 1000 civilians died each day, mostly from hunger.

These are the massive civilian casualties from which America has been insulated for nearly two hundred years. It made me feel very fortunate, but it also made me wonder about how that protection has affected our views regarding WWI and WWII. Many Americans on the WWII homefront remember those years as difficult, but not grim or desperate. Today, Americans often think of the period nostalgically, as our great era of cooperation and patriotism. As the 9th of May (Russian V-day) approaches, I wonder how WWII will be perceived by citizens of St. Petersburg.

The worst part was that throughout the tour, we all kept complaining about how cold and hungry we were.

Things I Forgot

For students interested in study abroad in general, here are a few things I regret not packing at all, or packing too much of:

-Reading glasses. Even if you only use them sparingly at home like I do, reading a foreign alphabet in small textbook font causes a lot more strain. I’m actually concerned that I may be damaging my vision at this point.

-A laundry bag. If you live in the dorms, you will need something in which to bring your laundry up and down three flights of stairs. If you don’t live in dorms and move to a homestay, a laundry bag is still helpful for keeping your dirty laundry contained, as a shopping bag (plastic bags here cost money), as a gym bag, or as padding for when you realize you purchased too many souvenirs that could be described as “delicate.” Laundry lines and clothespins are also helpful to set up in your dorm room, as dryers are uncommon in Russia.

-Writing implements, highlighters, page tabs, etc. If you use a lot of mechanical pencils, those really haven’t caught on here in a big way and you might want to pack enough for a whole semester. Maybe more, because your peers will undoubtedly also forget about writing implements and will permanently borrow yours. There are a lot of small stores in Russia, but they can be pretty random and you might have trouble finding highlighters or office-type supplies when you need them.

-Dollars cash. This is something I brought too much of. Trying to exchange money at a Russian kiosk is like working with the pickiest of vending machines. Any U.S. currency must be be crisp and free of even the slightest tears, creased/faded spots, or pen marks. Of course, the rubles you get in return will look like they were just fished out of a gutter. As a result, I now have a fair amount of money that is completely useless until I get to London, or even Boston. Oh well, at least I won’t go home completely broke.

Other commonly-forgotten items: charging cords, memory cards, backup pairs of gloves, pocket umbrellas, enough snacks to get through the initial plane rides/layovers/settling-in period, sports bras, presents from America for host families, batteries, plug converters, basic medicines and vitamins, bath towels, and bathing suits (I don’t care if it’s Russia–there’s still spring break travels, hotel pools, and banyas).

Road Rage Safari

I won’t mince words, Russia lives up to its terrible driving record. Statistics show that even though there are half as many cars in Russia as in the US, there are twice as many accidents in Russia. Russians themselves seem to recognize this, and have developed a system of bumper stickers in order to broadcast exactly which kind of bad driver they are:

student driver–you may also see similar stickers with the Russian letter “Ш” which mean the same thing

female driver–while this one may be in jest, this is a serious phenomenon in Moscow (where the logo chosen to represent women is a high-heeled shoe, perhaps more apt in Russia)

driver from Chernobyl

Russians also like to pimp their rides. Not with lights, hydraulics, or spoilers, but with obnoxious (and costly) paint jobs that usually resemble poorly-executed airbrush tattoos. Here are some of my favorites:

why

ok that’s pretty funny

concept by your 14 year old daughter?

Hipster of the Year Award: “I would like my car painted after my favorite scene from an obscure Soviet stop-motion short film.”